5 Tips for Interviewing A Parent or Grandparent

Looking to interview your loved one and preserve their memories?

Asking a loved one to document their memories can feel like a daunting request, even feel like a homework assignment. The last thing you want is for Grandma to feel like telling their story is a chore. Here are 5 of our top tips for helping your loved one have a great time recalling their memories.

  1. Put their comfort first. It sounds obvious, but the more comfortable your storyteller, the more relaxed they’ll be, and the easier the storytelling. If you want to videotape them, but they get self conscious on video, don’t push it; see if they’d be comfortable with audio recording instead. If you want them to write their story, but typing is difficult, maybe they’d be willing to handwrite a bit or dictate to you. If they get tired in the evening, find a time in the afternoon. Get them situated in a familiar, comfortable place, such as at home, and have a glass of water nearby. The more relaxed they are, the more stories you are likely to hear.

  2. Start off with a topic they know well. You might be curious to hear about their biggest reflections on life, but start with something more digestible. Try starting off by asking them for a story you’ve heard them tell many times, a family favorite. Stories that they know well make for an easy introduction. We like to start off by asking about childhood, such as where they grew up. You can always work up to the tougher, more reflective questions over time.

  3. Try throwing in a few specific questions designed to spark memories. There are certain questions that we find can touch off a whole flood of memories, and often elicit some of the most vivid stories their family has never heard before! Some of our favorites: 1) What’s the biggest trouble you ever got into, growing up? 2) Did you have any nicknames growing up? How did you get them, and did you like them? 3) Who was your best friend growing up? How did you meet them, and what do you remember about them? 4) Were there any hobbies or interests you had, that you gave up after becoming a parent? What were they?

  4. Just zip your lips and listen. Yes, really. One of the biggest temptations family members have when recording loved one’s stories is to jump in. Resist that temptation! You may feel tempted to cut in and say, “Yes, I know that part, and then Dad said—” Don’t do it! You may hear your grandfather trail off, and want to fill the silence by prompting him with a question, like “All right, so next question is—” Don’t do it! Don’t get us wrong, reactions are good—we’re not saying don’t laugh if something is funny or don’t gasp if something’s surprising—and in fact, reactions are a great way to make sure the storyteller knows you’re engaged! So, react, but just don’t take over the flow of the story yourself. Force yourself to sit there and be silent most of the time. When they pause, count to ten in the silence before you cut in, so long that it starts to feel uncomfortable. 9 times out of 10, it’s in the silence that more memories come back, and when you jump in, you’ll miss out. Be patient and you will learn more than you ever knew you could.

  5. Have someone there who doesn’t know them. This is one of the most counterintuitive tips, but it is true. If you are interviewing someone live, you’ll actually get more detailed stories by including someone in the room who doesn’t know them well. It can be a cousin who hasn’t heard the stories before, or even a stranger. The reason this works is that when we’re close to our family members, a lot of unconscious editing happens. Mom will skip over the part she thinks you already know. You will nod your head at parts you’ve already heard. By including someone there who hasn’t heard the stories before, the storyteller will fill in more of the context than they normally would, giving you a richer recording.

We hope these tips from our experience recording life stories for families will prove useful to you as you interview your loved one! If you aren’t going the DIY route, but are looking for an easy option to capture your loved one’s life story on audio, check us out at Keep Life Stories.